Human remains found at Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars, Laos. Source: Wikimedia

Excavations on the mysterious Plain of Jars in Laos may have finally provided an answer to what the vessels, which measure between one and three metres, were used for.

The thousands of scattered stone jars scattered over central Laos, hewn from bare rock, have perplexed archaeologists for decades.

Archaeologists have uncovered 2,500-year-old human remains buried close to a concentration of the stone jars.

Dr Dougald O’Reilly of the Australian National University, who led the project, said the find suggested the jars were used to decompose the bodies before remains were removed and buried

He said: “What is now clear is that these are mortuary and were used for the disposal of the dead. This will be the first major effort since the 1930s to attempt to understand the purpose of the jars and who created them.

“One theory is that they were used to decompose the bodies. Later, after the flesh was removed, the remains may have been buried around the jars.”

The stone jars are spread across 90 sites on the Xieng Khouang Plateau and are thought to date to the Iron Age. In some cases the jars appear to be isolated while elsewhere they are up to 400 stone vessels in a cluster.

The excavations, which started in February, form part of a five-year Australian Research Council Discovery Project, which is being managed with Monash University and the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism.

Vientiane is arguing that the Plain of Jars should be listed as a Unesco World Heritage site.

Theories for their use have included a storage vessels or to hold the cremated remains of the dead.

Cremated fragments of bones and teeth have been found in the jars in the past.

Unexploded bombs dropped by the Americans during the Vietnam War have hampered excavating many of the sites.

Recently, researchers have argued that the stone jars may initially have been used to distil the corpses of the dead but over time their use changed.

Bones found by O’Reilly’s team, dating between 500BC and 550AD, support this view.

O’Reilly said: “There are pits full of bones with a large limestone block placed over them and other burials where bones have been placed in ceramic vessels. Our excavations have also revealed, for the first time at one of these sites, a primary burial, where a body was placed in a grave.”

Just a few objects, such as glass beads, have been found with the remains making it difficult to assess the status of those buried there.